2013 Nobel Prize – Chemistry

download (36)And so now it is the turn of the alchemists, oops sorry, I mean Chemists, to receive an award.

What is interesting about this category is that if you look down the list of past winners, you will at best only recognise a few names such as Ernest RutherfordMarie Curie, and Linus Pauling. Check the rest and I’d bet you do not recognise any of them, so is it a bit odd that the names of many of the physicists who have won has penetrated the public consciousness, yet not the chemists. OK, so you recognised some of the names … ah but wait, Marie Curie also won for Physics, so perhaps that is why you know her. Oh and Ernest Rutherford was also a physicist, so that leaves Linus Pauling, and we know him because he promoted mega doses of Vitamin C, so we are down to zero well-known names.

It is just me?

I suspect not, I think what may be going on here is that the 20th century saw an amazing expansion of our understanding within the physics arena, hence the big names who introduced astonishing new ideas have entered into the public consciousness. Yet there are equally amazing minds within the chemistry arena who dramatically changed things for humans, but since a lot of that happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were too early for Nobel Prizes (One of the rules for getting a Nobel is that you need to still be breathing). So let me toss out a few well known chemists: Louis Pasteur (1822–1895)John Dalton (1766–1844)Michael Faraday (1791–1867)Alfred Nobel (1833–1896) (yes the man himself), Humphry Davy (1778–1829), and so on, all very much men from a different century.

Don’t misunderstand me, the modern Chemists have indeed done some truly amazing things and do indeed deserve their prizes.

So anyway, on with the prize for Chemistry, who has won and why were they chosen?

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2013 to

Martin Karplus
Université de Strasbourg, France and Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

Michael Levitt
Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA


Arieh Warshel
University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

“for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems”


The computer — your Virgil in the world of atoms

Chemists used to create models of molecules using plastic balls and sticks. Today, the modelling is carried out in computers. In the 1970s, Martin KarplusMichael Levitt and Arieh Warshel laid the foundation for the powerful programs that are used to understand and predict chemical processes. Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today.

Chemical reactions occur at lightning speed. In a fraction of a millisecond, electrons jump from one atomic nucleus to the other. Classical chemistry has a hard time keeping up; it is virtually impossible to experimentally map every little step in a chemical process. Aided by the methods now awarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, scientists let computers unveil chemical processes, such as a catalyst’s purification of exhaust fumes or the photosynthesis in green leaves.

The work of Karplus, Levitt and Warshel is ground-breaking in that they managed to make Newton’s classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics. Previously, chemists had to choose to use either or. The strength of classical physics was that calculations were simple and could be used to model really large molecules. Its weakness, it offered no way to simulate chemical reactions. For that purpose, chemists instead had to use quantum physics. But such calculations required enormous computing power and could therefore only be carried out for small molecules.

This year’s Nobel Laureates in chemistry took the best from both worlds and devised methods that use both classical and quantum physics. For instance, in simulations of how a drug couples to its target protein in the body, the computer performs quantum theoretical calculations on those atoms in the target protein that interact with the drug. The rest of the large protein is simulated using less demanding classical physics.

Today the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube. Simulations are so realistic that they predict the outcome of traditional experiments.


Martin Karplus, U.S. and Austrian citizen. Born 1930 in Vienna, Austria. Ph.D. 1953 from California Institute of Technology, CA, USA. Professeur Conventionné, Université de Strasbourg, France and Theodore William Richards Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.

Michael Levitt, U.S., Brittish and Israeli citizen. Born 1947 in Pretoria, South Africa. Ph.D. 1971 from University of Cambridge, UK. Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor in Cancer Research, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA.

Arieh Warshel, U.S. and Israeli citizen. Born 1940 in Kibbutz Sde-Nahum, Israel. Ph.D. 1969 from Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel. Distinguished Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA.


Leave a Reply